Recent killings of children in both the United States and Bangladesh have moved me. When I can’t wrap my mind around what can happen in this world, the order and structure imposed by verse can help clear my mind. Therefore, I have enclosed a poem at the bottom of the write-up.
We Americans have about one image that we can keep in our head about a country at a time. The one many of us have of India is that of Gandhi, peacefully leading a march to the sea to make salt. We tend to think of India as a spiritual, non-violent land. Perhaps that’s why so many people I’ve mentioned it to here are shocked by India’s border killings of innocent Bangladeshis, especially the girl, Felani. It doesn’t fit with the image we in America have of India.
How can any nation justify such abuses of basic human rights, especially a nation that, because of its colonial history, should understand the sufferings of the oppressed? I suppose you can counter, “Well, how can the United States, alleged proponent of liberty, ever support repressive regimes?”
Granted, we are guilty of our own forms of hypocrisy. Our hands aren’t clean either. Still, we the individual citizens of any nation have the right and the duty to stand up and say something when we hear of atrocities, wherever they occur. First and foremost, I am a father and a family man. I have a 15-year-old daughter. That gives me an emotional bond with Felani’s father that I can’t dismiss silently. I must respond, and perhaps keep responding, until this senseless slaughter is just an unfortunate chapter in the history of India. A father of one child is the father of all children. The sons and daughters of Bangladesh are my sons and daughters as well.
I know India and Bangladesh are going to address these matters. India promises within the next few months to “resolve these matters”. This is a positive step forward, but it does not bring back the dead, or answer the question as to how a government steps over the line from a misplaced sense of superiority into a callous disregard for human life. No high-level talks should have to be conducted for governments to prescribe to some very basic level of human decency, especially among friends and neighbours. Those who perpetrated and ordered these acts are criminals, and those who, to this point, condoned these acts should be brought to justice. Felani was not the first innocent child to die.
The Killing of 15-year-old Felani by Indian Border Guards… An American Father Responds.
Mahatma, help me make some sense
Of slaughtered children on your fence
Your nation stained, your image scarred
By Sahib Death, the Border Guard.
On the wire, mournful cries
Of parents rise into the skies
The bullets steal a nation’s youth
While politics obscure the truth.
If madness and mistrust increase
If we can slay our men of peace
Can killing children be that hard,
For Sahib Death, The Border Guard?
I hear a father’s cry of grief
Of agony beyond belief
And wonder what a monstrous thief
Could snuff a light so bright, so brief?
Our tears and rage won’t make us blind
We can’t be violent, kill in kind
For we’d grow soulless, damned and hard
As Sahib Death, the Border Guard.
Back here, we’ve suffered tragic ends
The work of madmen, not of friends.
My nation mourns the rare events
That happen daily on your fence.
At least we know each precious soul
Has eluded death’s patrol,
Has reached a land which can’t be barred
By Sahib Death, the Border Guard.
Descendants of the dead who fell
Into a distant Martyr’s well
Belay the murd’rous disregard
Of Sahib Death, your border guard!
Beloved readers, I have said it before. Bangladesh, from this “Martian” perspective, to quote aladin’s article of last week, is a nation of colour and energy. I could do a whole piece on how people use colours to decorate that which is most important to them, our street signs are colourful, our advertisements are colourful, our cars are colourful. Even our gas stations are colourful. In Bangladesh, looking at the photographs of the election queues, it seems that the people themselves are the most colourful element on the landscape. Everyone is so brightly, so lavishly dressed. What this means to me is that yours is a nation that subconsciously understands and celebrates its people above all else. When any of this colourful number, especially children, has her life brutally cut short, I feel it a world away.
This article originally stopped at the end of the poem. My editor emailed me to ask if this was really all I had to say. As I did research on this issue, read the story about that 13-year-old boy shot dead across the border during a shouting match with an Indian border guard a few years back, or this girl who was shot and left to die on the fence, at the age of 15, I had no words. My youngest daughter is 15, and my youngest son is 13. They are the elements of my life that I would dress in bright colours. Every parent worries about their children’s futures. I know, only from an American perspective what it is to burrow through the couch to find change to buy milk, or use a newspaper and some sphagnum moss as a diaper, and even how your ears burn when the nice person next to you in church gives you money because they see, as a new and struggling parent, that you need the money. And you face it all, you struggle and you fight, because you are a father and you do it for the sake of your child. Of all the ways to identify yourself: nationality, religion, race, party, or social class, above everything else, parenthood has the power to transform the way you live your life. It is a universal identifier. We, the fathers of the world, belong to a common brotherhood.
I struggled in the early years of fatherhood because my wife and I were still students, and students are universally poor. Here in American want is often just a temporary condition for the soon to be middle-class. This is a puddle that evaporates within a few years, and though my family walked the tightrope all those years ago, we were never without the safety net of my own father, if we really needed help. I never had to risk being shot by foreign soldiers, allies at that, to put bread on the table.
But I imagine a Bangladeshi father on the day his daughter dressed to go with him and arrange the particulars of a marriage with a husband in India. I imagine how a tear might have caught in the father’s throat to see his girl dressed up, grown and engaged to be married, how it would pain him to part with her, especially since he would eventually be separated from her new family and from his grandchildren, by a national border. I imagine the memories Felani’s dad would have of his little girl’s childhood, the struggles, the dreams, the prayers that all fathers have for their cherished daughters, who, no matter how old they get, we fathers permanently regard as loving, big-eyed seven year olds. I know the thought that sometimes goes through a father’s head. “In my youth, I dreamed big dreams that didn’t come true, but I have this wonderful child. If this was the trade, my dreams for in exchange for her life, I got the best of the bargain.” I know the memory of the soft hand of a ten year old girl, holding her father’s own rough, calloused hand, telegraphing through her warm fingers her absolute faith and trust in her father’s protective strength. I know the secret prayer of all fathers that God make them worthy of that trust. We see a horrible picture of a girl on a fence, but I see the father, present for her 15 years, for every stroke of the hairbrush, for every wiggly baby tooth, worrying, dreaming of a safer, happier life for his daughter.
I don’t know whether Felani’s father was rich or poor, or what sort of safety net he had for his daughter. I only know that all of his earthly struggle, love, and concern were erased by a single barbarous act. I only know that now, as this far-off brother of mine walks home from his labours searching for blessings, the absence of his little girl’s hand will permanently remind him that he was not strong enough to protect his own trusting little angel from the cruel indifference of this world.
Honestly, there are no words.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.